Wednesday, May 27, 2009

A collector says goodbye to a trove of Lewisiana

Cy Fox examines a work by Wyndham Lewis. Deddeda Stemler photograph.

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
May 27, 2009


Sometimes, late at night, a volume in his hands, Cy Fox reads aloud to himself, the soft lilt of his native Newfoundland rolling off his tongue like a calm sea against rock.

He knows not what the neighbours think of a man who performs a monologue to an audience of himself.

Their possible concern would not be eased should they know he thinks the book itself – the flat, printed words – speaks to him.

Mr. Fox is not so much mad as possessed.

In one's life, there are few moments when one can look back and say – There. That's when it all changed.

It was a simple suggestion by a classmate to read a volume by the modernist author Wyndham Lewis.

“I was seized by this character and he has never let go,” Mr. Fox said. “He's still there up on the bookcase, ready to start talking. As soon as I open the page I hear that voice ready to bark out at you in the most spirited fashion. Very amusing, too. Entertaining.”

A half-century has passed. The troublesome author, born on his father's yacht in the waters off Nova Scotia, is long gone, his reputation hotly debated in academia but rarely elsewhere. His genius as an artist and writer is not in dispute, though some see in his participation in the Vorticist art movement a latent support for the future totalitarian movements of his age. He was not immediate in his denunciation of Hitler, though he became a vociferous critic before the start of the Second World War. A virulent anti-Communism did not endear him to generations of Marxist critics.

Mr. Fox discovered a maverick voice for which he had nothing but admiration.

“Very outspoken. Very honest. Direct. Exciting in the extreme,” he said.

He began hunting for the man's works. He gathered prints and other artworks. He sent postcards to those personages who knew the man, getting responses from the likes of Lord Beaverbrook.

In time, Mr. Fox gathered an awesome trove of Lewisiana, including rare volumes, signed editions and fascinating ephemera. These he has donated to the library at the University of Victoria, which has a collection of nonconformist British writers such as John Betjeman, Robert Graves and Herbert Read, as well as an archive of anarchist materials.

An eight-week-long exhibition called The Lion and the Fox comes to a scheduled end tomorrow.

Mr. Fox, 77, is preparing to bid a final farewell to what he has described as his life's “only legacy.”

The retired journalist is a raconteur of wit and charm, armed as he is with a rich store of stories from his time as a wire-service correspondent. He abandoned the opportunity to gain a history doctorate to instead become an Associated Press reporter in the global hot spot of Newark, N.J. He later covered the nascent bombing campaign of the first generation of the Front de libération du Québec in Montreal; the student and worker uprising in Paris in May, 1968 (“a media revolution”); and the Turkish invasion of Cyprus in 1974, during which he was ensconced in the glamorous Ledra Palace Hotel in Nicosia when he spied balloons dropping from the sky. These, of course, turned out to be paratroopers.

All through his adventures, he sought out items of his literary hero.

On a brisk London afternoon in February, 1956, Mr. Fox emerged from Foyles book shop on Charing Cross Road with a package of volumes that lifted his spirit.

“A couple of real doozers. At nice low prices with dust jackets. I was immensely gratified.”

He determined to ride the Tube to Notting Hill Gate, where his quarry lived.

“I was going to go up there and shake the old boy's hand,” he recalled. “I knew he was in bad shape. Blind. Deaf. Had dizzy spells.”

In the end, a brief adventurousness was conquered by a more familiar shyness.

“I felt very diffident and found myself heading home. I'm sure I would have had a fine time. On the other hand, he could have had me thrown out, as a bill collector.”

Mr. Lewis died the following year, a “poor man. But he had his say in a herculean way.” Mr. Fox befriended the widow, Froanna. (Her name, he eagerly shares, was coined by Mr. Lewis as a contraction of their German housekeeper's daily salutation to Frau Anna.) Her support led to many further discoveries, the greatest of which was a copy of an extremely rare pamphlet, Anglosaxony , published in Toronto during the war.

Mr. Fox was living in Toronto when Chris Petter, the University of Victoria archivist, visited. Mr. Petter spent hours in the book-lined apartment, leaving just before midnight.

When the movers later hauled away the final box, Mr. Fox found himself bereft.

“It left me limp. A huge void. A huge gap.” Still, he found solace in the knowledge “I'd see it all again.”

He moved to Victoria 18 months ago to be near the collection. He lives in an apartment in the James Bay neighbourhood, where a bookshelf has volumes of Lewis works he has again purchased, this time for his own pleasure. He also has a rubber bullet from his time as a correspondent in Northern Ireland.

He recently completed a memoir, recounting his own “jubilant adventures,” as well as more than one incident of a journalist falling off a barstool on Fleet Street. A dozen copies were published for the exhibition, the cover decorated by a Lewis painting of boats on the Grand Banks.

Mr. Fox was born in St. John's, the son of a judge and the grandson on his mother's side to a Newfoundland prime minister. His father, also named Cyril Fox, died in 1946 while heading a national convention on Newfoundland's constitutional future. To this day, the son considers himself a Canadian “by legislation.”

When the exhibition closes, the books and letters and other stuffs will be no longer totems of one man's obsession. They will serve instead as a scholarly resource.

The collector will make a return visit to the campus later this week, a final opportunity to hold one last time some of the more than 770 items he diligently gathered for five decades.

Then, no longer having a reason to be in Victoria, he will move away.

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